Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Supreme Importance of Prayer

One mark of Modernism is the emphasis on social justice.  There are those who feel it is at least as important, and maybe even more so, to concentrate on taking care of the physical needs of people than on our personal prayer and our relationship with Our Lord.  But in his weekly audience on April 25, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI specifically stated:  "It is significant that the Apostles acknowledge the importance of both prayer and works of charity, yet clearly give priority to prayer and the proclamation of the Gospel."  The most important part of our lives is prayer, even above works of charity.  Why would that be?  Without prayer, we are living our lives apart from God, who is the source of all that is good.  Works of charity, apart from God, who is True Love, are meaningless, as the Apostle Paul told us in I Corinthians 13:1-3:
If I speak with the tongues of men, and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And if I should have prophecy and should know all mysteries, and all knowledge, and if I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And if I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor, and if I should deliver my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
Works of charity will flow out of our relationship with God, as surely as planting a seed in the ground will cause a plant to grow and bloom.  But we must first have that relationship with God, and that is what our Holy Father is telling us.  Apart from God and a close personal relationship with our Creator, we are nothing more than sounding brass and clanging symbols.
Dear brothers and sisters,

In the last catechesis, I showed that from the beginning of her journey, the Church found herself having to face unforeseen situations, new questions and emergencies, which she sought to respond to in the light of faith, by allowing herself to be guided by the Holy Spirit.

Today I would like to pause to reflect on another of these situations, on a serious problem that the first Christian community in Jerusalem had to face and resolve, as St. Luke tells us in the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, regarding the pastoral care of charity shown to those were alone and in need of help and assistance. The question is not of secondary importance for the Church and, at the time, it risked creating divisions within the Church; in fact, the number of the disciples was increasing, but the Hellenists began to murmur against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution (cf. Acts 6:1). Faced with this urgent need involving a fundamental aspect of the life of the community; i.e. charity shown to the weak, the poor, and the defenseless -- and justice -- the Apostles summon the whole group of the disciples.

At this time of pastoral emergency what stands out is the Apostles’ discernment. They are faced with the primary need to proclaim the Word of God according to the mandate of the Lord; but even though this is the primary demand placed upon the Church -- they consider with equal seriousness the duty of charity and of justice, that is, the duty of assisting widows and the poor, of lovingly providing for their brothers and sisters in situations of need, in order to respond to Jesus’ command: love one another as I have loved you (cf. John 15:12,17).

Therefore, the two realities they must live out within the Church -- the proclamation of the Word, the primacy of God, and concrete charity, justice -- are creating difficulties and a solution must be found, so that both may have their place, their necessary relation. The Apostles’ reflection is very clear; they say, as we heard: “It is not right that we should give up preaching the Word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2-4).

Two things appear: first, that from that moment in the Church, there is a ministry of charity. The Church must not only proclaim the Word; she must also make the Word, which is charity and truth, a reality. And the second point: these men were to be not only of good repute; they must be men filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom; that is, they cannot be mere organizers who know how to “do”; they must “do so” in the spirit of faith by the light of God, in wisdom of heart. Therefore also their role -- though primarily of a practical nature -- is still a spiritual role. Charity and justice are not only social actions; rather, they are spiritual activities realized in the light of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, we may say that the situation is handled with great responsibility on the part of the Apostles, who make this decision: seven men are chosen; the Apostles pray in order to ask for the power of the Holy Spirit; and then they lay hands on them so that they might be dedicated in a special way to this service of charity. Thus, in the Church’s life, in the first steps she takes, what happened during Jesus’ public life, in the home of Martha and Mary in Bethania, is reflected in a certain way. Martha was wholly given over to the service of hospitality offered to Jesus and to His disciples; Mary, on the other hand, devotes herself to listening to the Word of the Lord (cf. Luke 10:38-42). In both cases, the moments of prayer and of listening to God, and daily activity, i.e. the exercise of charity, are not placed in opposition. Jesus’ reminder: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the better part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42), as well as the Apostles’ reflection: “We … will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4), demonstrate the priority that we must give to God.

I do not wish to enter now into an interpretation of this Martha-Mary pericope. At any rate, activity on behalf of one’s neighbor, for the other, should not be condemned; however, it should be emphasized that activity must also be penetrated interiorly by the spirit of contemplation. On the other hand, St. Augustine says that the reality of Mary is a vision of what shall be ours in heaven; therefore, on earth we can never have it completely, but a little taste of anticipation must nonetheless be present in all of our activities. The contemplation of God must also be present. We must not lose ourselves in pure activism, but should always allow ourselves to be penetrated, even in our activity, by the light of God’s Word and thereby learn true charity, true service of our neighbor, who doesn’t need many things -- certainly he has need of the necessities -- but who above all needs our heart’s affection, the light of God. [The Holy Father is telling us that yes, we must take care of the physical needs of our neighbors, but first and foremost are the spiritual needs.]

St. Ambrose, commenting on the episode of Martha and Mary, thus exhorts his faithful and also us: “Let us also seek to have what cannot be taken away from us, by offering diligent, undistracted attention to the Lord’s Word: for it also happens that the seeds of the heavenly word are carried off, if they are strewn along the path. Like Mary, stir up within yourself the desire to know: this is the greatest, most perfect work.” And he adds: “may the care of ministry not distract us from the knowledge of heavenly words,” from prayer (Expositio Evangelii secundum Lucam, VII, 85: PL 15, 1720).

The saints, then, have experienced a profound unity of life between prayer and action, between total love of God and love for the brethren. [Our ultimate goal - to love God and to love our fellow man] St. Bernard, who is a model of harmony between contemplation and industriousness, in the book De consideratione, addressed to Pope Innocent II in order to offer him a few reflections on his ministry, insists precisely upon the importance of interior recollection and of prayer in defending oneself from the dangers of excessive activity, whatever be the condition in which we find ourselves and the task we carry out. St. Bernard affirms that too many occupations, a frenetic life, often end in hardening the heart and in making the spirit suffer (cf. II, 3).  [Action without contemplative prayer will lead to burnout and make us ineffectual and spiritually impotent.]

It is a precious reminder for us today, habituated as we are to evaluate everything based upon the criteria of productivity and efficiency. The passage from the Acts of the Apostles reminds us of the importance of work -- whence, undoubtedly, true ministry is born – and of the importance of commitment to daily activity responsibly carried out with dedication, but it also reminds us of our need for God, for His guidance, for His light, which gives us strength and hope. Without daily prayer faithfully lived out, our activity becomes empty, it loses its deep soul, it is reduced to mere activism, which in the end leaves us unsatisfied.

There is a beautiful invocation from the Christian tradition to be recited before each activity, which goes like this: “Actiones nostras, quæsumus, Domine, aspirando præveni et adiuvando prosequere, ut cuncta nostra oratio et operatio a te semper incipiat, et per te coepta finiatur”, that is: “Inspire our actions, Lord, and accompany them by your help, so that our every word and act may always have its beginning in you and in you be brought to completion.” Every step of our lives, every action -- also of the Church -- must be carried out before God, in the light of His Word.

In last Wednesday’s catechesis I had emphasized the first Christian community’s undivided prayer in the face of trial and how, precisely in prayer, in meditation on Sacred Scripture, it was able to understand the events it was going through. When prayer is nourished by the Word of God we are able to see reality with new eyes, with the eyes of faith, and the Lord -- who speaks to the mind and heart -- gives new light on the journey at every moment and in every situation. We believe in the power of God’s Word and in prayer. Even the difficulties the Church was living through when faced with the problem of service to the poor -- the question of charity -- were overcome through prayer, in the light of God, of the Holy Spirit.

St. Peter Ordaining St. Stephen
The Apostles did not merely ratify their choice of Stephen and the other men, but “after having prayed, they laid their hands upon them” (Acts 6:6). The Evangelist will record these acts again on the occasion of the election of Paul and Barnabas, where we read: “after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:3). It again confirms that the practice of charity is a spiritual service. Both realities must go together.

With the laying on of hands, the Apostles confer a particular ministry upon seven men, so that they might be given the corresponding grace. The emphasis on prayer -- “after praying,” they say -- is important because it highlights the action’s spiritual dimension; it is not simply a matter of conferring a task, as happens in a social organization; rather, it is an ecclesial event in which the Holy Spirit appropriates to Himself seven men whom the Church has chosen by consecrating them in the Truth, who is Jesus Christ: He is the silent protagonist, present in the imposition of hands so that those who are chosen might be transformed by His power and sanctified in order to face the practical challenges, the challenges of pastoral life. And the emphasis on prayer reminds us, moreover, that it is only through an intimate relationship with God cultivated each day that a response to the Lord’s choice is born and that every ministry in the Church is entrusted.

Dear brothers and sisters, the pastoral problem that led the Apostles to choose and lay hands on seven men charged with the task of the service of charity, in order that they might dedicate themselves to prayer and to preaching the Word, indicates also to us the primacy of prayer and of God’s Word, which then also produces pastoral action. For Pastors, this is the first and most precious form of service paid to the flock entrusted to them. If the lungs of prayer and the Word of God fail to nourish the breath of our spiritual life, we risk suffocating amid a thousand daily cares: prayer is the breath of the soul and of life. And there is another precious reminder that I would like to emphasize: in our relationship with God, in listening to His Word, in conversation with God, even when we find ourselves in the silence of a church or in our room, we are united in the Lord with so many brothers and sisters in faith, like an ensemble of instruments that, though retaining their individuality, offer to God one great symphony of intercession, of thanksgiving and of praise. Thank you.
Once more, the depth and wisdom of the Holy Father amazes me.  He strikes at the core of the ills we face, and shows that we have and are nothing apart from our Creator.  The Holy Father, in his message, emphasizes how absolutely vital prayer is to our lives.  As Pope Benedict XVI said:  "If the lungs of prayer and the Word of God fail to nourish the breath of our spiritual life, we risk suffocating amid a thousand daily cares: prayer is the breath of the soul and of life. "

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